Mike is a member of an ever-growing demographic in this country: the working poor. He has a full-time job, "pulls his weight" as some boot-strapping politicians might say, yet life is still a struggle for him.
Wednesday at the community meal, he showed me something he had written up, a brief description of his current life. It is very real, and I thought it something that should be shared with everyone. While his written personal reflection had no goal other than a story, I could see the plight of the working poor as I read his paper. He allowed me to post it.
His story has given me inspiration for something bigger and more profound, but I think I should be true to his story, one author to another, and keep my idea for a later time.
To the working poor stress is a constant companion in their effort to support themselves. This world is one of constantly monitoring how to most effectively use what little they make.
Back in 1980 to 1986, I went to UWM (University of Wisconsin @ Milwaukee) both full time some years and part time other years. I never got a degree. I dropped out in 1986. I dropped out to learn from the school of life. Only the school of life, I finally realized, was a harsh teacher. The total number of years that encompass my years as a member of the working poor include 13 years prior to college and 19 years after, totalling 32 years in all.
I am a member of the working poor. Although I am 55 years old now, I don't look like it. (he doesn't) I do feel like 55 on the inside. I live in the Riverwest area. I've had assorted jobs and have been working at G&K Services for just over 4 and a half years now. The business is located in the New Berlin Industrial Park. It's an hour and 20 minutes bus ride one way, so having a functional car is important.
Fortunately I own a quality used car, a 1996 Honda Accord, which I financed with a loan. I also financed a nice bedroom set. I have two loans to pay off. I make $10.71 an hour. I have medical coverage which costs me approximately $65 per month out of pre-tax income. Plus I set aside 10% of my pre-tax income to put into a 401K. I have virtually no savings. How is it possible for me to survive, when the on-going costs of life: rent, utilities, phone, out-of-pocket medical expenses, car insurance, food expenses, etc. eat up most of what little income I make - nevermind the unforeseen expenses that pop up like landmines.
My approximately 18 to 20 thousand dollars per year income has even been reduced by the state economy. Instead of working 40-50 hours per week during this time of the year, which is the busy season of the year at G&K, I am only working 31 to 35 hours per week. So even though it's tough to survive at 40 hours per week at $10.71 per hour, my income has been significantly reduced even further. Plus the possibility of lay-offs loom in the near future.
I figure there is an expectation made by society that when a person becomes a member of the working poor, he or she assume the responsibility of paying my bills, whatever bills are incurred, on time despite one's level of income. I don't know if I am the puppeteer, juggling all my financial responsibilities, or if I am the puppet being buffeted by the cold, hard reality - trying to survive in a world that requires that I make a better income to somehow come out on top.
I don't want your pity. I want to help you understand what my life and others like mine are like. I believe I have raw talent and ability. I volunteer quite regularly at St. Benedict's Meal Program. I've been there 16 years now. My volunteer effort there makes use of some skills and talents my day job does not. This helps me to feel productive and worthwhile, and feeds my sense of spirituality. I continue to believe in who I am, in what talents and abilities I have, and in the hope that I can better my economic status. I hope because without hope one's quality of life slips immeasurably. I know that to have a car, a decent bedroom set, and the ability finance them, put me in a better position than others who are also working poor but make less in wages. To have the ability income-wise to afford medical insurance and a 401K also puts me a few steps ahead of those who make less in wages. That is small comfort for me. The financial realities of survival continue to intrude and have an impact on my life. I know that in a practical and realistic sense, a huge challenge is before me.